Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Magazines! An interview with Emily Keeler, Jeremy Hanson-Finger and Tyler Willis

Share |

It’s my last few hours as Open Book’s Writer in Residence and I’m going out with a bang. This is an interview with three Toronto-based magazine publishers about being Toronto-based magazine publishers. There are few folks who are doing more exciting ‘zine work, and I can think of no better way to show myself to the door than by posting this interview.

Here’s the cast in order of appearance:

Emily M. Keeler is a writer and the editor of Little Brother Magazine.

Jeremy Hanson-Finger is the publisher and co-founder of Dragnet Magazine. He grew up in Victoria and moved to Ottawa to attend Carleton University, where he wrote his MA thesis on dirty bits in postmodern American fiction. He now lives in Toronto, where he works as a freelance editor. His first book of short fiction, Eyeless and Gazing, is forthcoming later in 2013 with Montreal's 8th House Publishing.

Tyler Willis is one of the founding co-editors of The Puritan. He holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. He is currently unemployed.

AF: Thanks for agreeing to the interview. As an introduction, could you provide a brief overview of your magazine?

EMK: But of course! Little Brother is a printed magazine of essays, short fiction, photography, &c, that is published twice a year. Each issue features a long essay; in the first issue Stephen Thomas wrote about his personal and professional misgivings about being a Canadian writer in the shadow of America’s literature, and in the second issue Alicia Louise Merchant wrote about the role that jokes play in living with cancer, Tig Notaro, and making comedy out of tragedy even as the tragedy persists. As a rule, we do not publish conventional criticism. Little Brother is perhaps more invested in exploring the ambiguities and nuances of being alive than in aesthetic arguments. That said, LB essays certainly engage with culture, with the world. Peter Merriman, for example, gets to the heart of Norm MacDonald’s comedic charm in his LB2 essay. In our most recent issue, the Jokes issue, we published a list on the topic of Canadian comedy rock bands from Shari Kasman alongside a special feature of writerly takes on the joke as a narrative form, with short pieces from Chris Randle, Ellie Anglin, and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, among others. We are proud to present a range of short fiction, from both new and established hands. LB has published stories from Mariko Tamaki, Andrew Kaufman, Kaya Genç, A.G. Pasqella, Ellie Anglin, among others. With both stories and essays, we look first for good writing, which we define as the kind of writing that sticks itself to readers, that has both the grit and poise to cling to and cary itself around the reader’s mind for some time. LB is a discrete place for new writing and new thinking.

In short: Stories, essays, photography, et cetera. In print.

JHF: Dragnet has existed as a triannual online and e-book magazine of short fiction and poetry since February 2011. Starting in September 2013, it will also print anthologies of some of the best pieces every two years. Our focus is on work that’s not afraid to employ humour in delving into serious topics. We strongly agree with David Foster Wallace’s comment that good writing is about “what it is to be a fucking human being”; we would add to that statement, “and being a human being always includes humourous elements, no matter how tragic the situation.” We created Dragnet in response to a perceived gap in this area: a lot of Canadian literary magazines ignore the rich tradition of satire in Canadian writing, and we wanted to provide an outlet for the many exciting writers working in that mode. We primarily publish fiction under 1000 words, but do have some longer pieces, and we take a suite of poems from one poet per issue.

TW: The Puritan got its start in Ottawa in the Fall of 2006 as a magazine tailored exclusively to fiction writers, at a time when there were no magazines from that town dedicated to prose. It could be said that The Puritan was launched in the spirit of resistance as its original mandate emphasized balancing what we perceived to be an under-representation of fiction in a town saturated with poetic output. While our initial bravado made us a number of early enemies, it also won us a handful of strange and unexpected opportunities including invitations to the 2006 Governor General's Literary Awards and a Canada Council gala, both of which we attended without having published a first issue.

The Puritan has always tried in its way to be contemporary and relevant, which has resulted in its share of failed ideas and burnt bridges. As an unfunded print magazine, The Puritan's flash was bright but brief, and after seven misshapen issues, the magazine went belly up and bankrupted its editors. Still too young and brazen to recognize defeat, we returned after a brief hiatus, our pride mended and our wounds scabbed over.

When The Puritan moved to Toronto in 2009, it rose from the effigial ashes of a failed print enterprise, newly incarnated as an online journal. This transformation allowed us access to Canada Council funding (and the subsequent ability to pay our authors), as well as a broader circulation and a considerably wider canvass. Of course, the management of an online journal run by two guys with no digital knowledge whatsoever poses its own unique set of problems. Luckily, a handful of like-minded and equally stoic souls have joined us on staff. Our list of readers grows with each issue, and a team of dedicated associate editors have allowed us to create separate fiction and poetry squads. Like any pioneering project, The Puritan's trajectory has always been uphill; each quarter presents its particular obstacles, and we respond. While we may not reinvent the wheel, we certainly shoulder it as best we can.

AF: It sounds like there’s a shared emphasis on newness. But you’ve taken drastically different routes to get there—Little Brother’s a print magazine that seems to provide an open mix of content, while Dragnet and The Puritan are primarily digital but otherwise seem to take the form of more traditional literary journals. How you present your content—whether it’s in print, online, or whatever—seems to be one of the more difficult choices you’ve faced. Can you talk a little bit about your medium, and the role it plays in how you operate and the type of content you publish?

JHF: On the Internet, we are competing for eyeballs with every organization that delivers content—Buzzfeed is just a click away. As a result, we wanted to make the experience as smooth as possible so people didn’t lose focus and switch to something more immediately rewarding. Although scrolling through a single column of text can work for journalistic writing, we think it appears threatening to casual readers of fiction: from informal polling we found that the “wall of text did not read” reaction was a main reason why people didn’t read fiction online. Our solution, from a technical standpoint, was to lay the magazine out in InDesign as a 16:10 rectangle with the end goal of displaying it as a Flash slideshow, with text flowed into three columns so it would fit nicely on laptop and tablet screens without scrolling or zooming. We also provide it as an .ePub format e-book, which can be loaded onto any e-reader device or smartphone. Our technological decisions, however, do limit the types of poetry we accept: because of the way .ePub files allow text resizing and turning on and off hyphenation and justification, we don’t accept any formatting in poetry beyond line spaces. As well as length of stories and formatting in poetry, our medium also demands that we focus on work that pushes boundaries in terms of content but still fundamentally tells a story, and tells it with good pacing. Although we personally enjoy experimental writing, the Internet reading experience does not lend itself to the sustained level of thought required by some of the more formally challenging works we receive for consideration, so for the purposes of Dragnet we tend to favour more traditional narrative structures.

EMK: Like Jeremy, I think that form and content reward the reader most when they work harmoniously together. Little Brother is a printed artifact, rather than a digital collection or website, because I wanted to make enough space for long pieces, for experiments, for prose that isn’t forced to hurriedly unfurl itself in the rush of the web. I wanted to collect pieces together and arrange them according to rhythm, should a reader have enough trust in what we’re doing to read them as we present them. I wanted to reward re- rather than half- readings. In short, I wanted a measure of control over the context in which the labours of our contributors could be enjoyed, and it seemed that the best way to do that was to present the work in a medium that doesn’t seem quite so ready to continually interrupt itself.

TW: I think that there are more interesting dichotomies in Canadian publishing than simply print vs. digital.

There is a shared mythology among Canadian small press publishers that editing is a glamourous job: filled with glass-clinking and toast-making, hob-nobbing with celebrities and sharing knowing glances with other up-and-comers. I find that while certainly rewarding, the work of editing is quite unglamourous.

Editing is a covert mission; most of the work is done in isolation, lit by the hard light of a monitor, fuelled by bottomless cups of coffee. In this way, the job of editing has more in common with the job of writing than most care to admit. I can only speak from personal experience, of course, and my opinions are more often than not anomalous, but editing to me is a shared collaborative experience. An artistic partnership exists between author and editor, each working from his or her own lonely place, and when each trusts the other, amazing work emerges, shaped and sculpted by collaborative construction. If the author inspires the editor, and the editor tempers the author, the writing will hopefully benefit. This is the true reward of editing that makes, at least for me, the whole process worthwhile.

Because of this, The Puritan has, from its very outset, insisted upon a deeply involved editing process. No work is ever instantly publishable. Each submission goes through a careful, multi-tiered selection process which starts with work being read and selected by 18 readers, and is then subjected to several rounds of rigorous editing by the two head editors and four associate editors. For our Spring Issue we received over 500 submissions, proving that this jalopy of a lit journal would totally fall apart without its incredible crew. This reinforces the editorial mandate at The Puritan that a magazine is only as good as the writing it publishes.

For The Puritan, the digital space afforded by the Internet allows us to embrace longer, more experimental forms. The polished 4,000 word short story, or the amiable four-stanza lyric are a staple in Canadian literary magazine culture, but The Puritan is trying in its own small way to feature bigger, more innovative work. Embracing the long form, whether in poetry, fiction, reviews, or interviews, is certainly more difficult than the alternative. Precise edits and careful correspondence with authors—especially over thirty-plus pages—is difficult work, but it is a conscious choice and one that is vital to reinvigorating the literary sensibilities in this country. Magazine writing in Canada is growing stale because the big, university-funded journals like The Malahat Review and The Fiddlehead are still producing the same kind of writing that they have been for half a century. I think online magazines like Dragnet and The Puritan can break this monopoly of small, safe writing if we embrace the delimiting avenues the Internet offers. If, as Jeremy suggests, it is becoming more difficult to capture the attention of today's focus-starved readers, I would argue that a shorter, sleeker presentation model by its very nature de-prioritizes the longer, the stranger, the more experimental works that Canadian magazines should be promoting.

AF: Emily mentioned the “rhythm” of reading a magazine. To what extent do you simply publish the best material available to you compared to putting out an issue that is more considered collection of material that fits well together? And it seems to me that you all place a heavy emphasis on design, which must factor into how an issue is composed...

EMK: As it currently stands, Little Brother is not technically open to submissions (that said, a few people have successfully sent me queries). Though this may change as the magazine grows, right now every piece that appears in the magazine is solicited, or in rare cases, accepted, with an eye towards the particular issue in which it may run. LB collects writing that however loosely explores a theme, and so every element that appears in the magazine is from ground zero considered and shaped with an awareness of how the whole issue will hang together.

Charles Yao, LB’s art director, has a nearly miraculous facility with type. When we were in the first stages of designing LB1, he decided to primarily rely on two typefaces and a minimalist grid. We both take the work of our contributors very seriously, and while we are excited to play around with the possibilities of print, giving our readers the best, most legible, reading experience is our paramount concern. In this spirit, we decided from the beginning to avoid digital printing, because the shiny, cooked ink that sits on top of the page is less comfortable to read than ink that’s been absorbed by the page. It’s a small difference that doesn’t quite register when you’re looking at publications with shorter runs of text, but for the work we’re interested in it can begin to subtly take its toll. It would kill me to know that someone stopped reading a contributor’s piece half-way through simply because we didn’t care enough about the comfort of the eyes of our readers! I love literature and art that has an immersive quality, and Charles and I both want Little Brother to establish that kind of intimacy with our readers, so we consciously try to make sure the way the magazine looks and feels encourages that kind of experience.

JHF: We take the opposite tactic from LB: we are open to submissions (although we do also solicit writers we like to submit work through Submittable) and we comb through everything we receive before each issue and select the best material. Only then do we think about the issue as a whole and how to organize it. Although we use a discrete issue format rather than an individual post format, we make our decisions with the basic unit of the individual piece in mind, rather than the thematic issue.

Sometimes a theme appears as we are putting it together. We thought of Issue Six as the “filth” issue. It wasn’t particularly dirty (although we have no problem with publishing sexually explicit work); it was just gross, as it included a piece by Terence Young about drowning mice in a bucket and a dramatization of the Twitter account @DadBoner by Andrew F. Sullivan . . . actually, the spirit of the filth issue was perhaps best encapsulated by the last line of Rowan Melling’s piece “Fermenting” : “Dozing there, on the floor, he could feel the cool metal touching his skin and he thought of how the beer would churn through him, purge his insides and turn his shit into fire.”

The main limit our design (and specifically having a functional magazine in two electronic formats without losing any content) imposes on composition, as well as the fact we don’t allow tabs in fiction or poetry, is that each piece is given equal weight. We don’t have special features or sidebars.

TW: There is definitely a rhythm to reading a magazine. While each individual work must, of course, stand on its own legs, a magazine works best when pieces complement each other. Our overall aim is to offer a participatory space, where the written work can interact with the writing process. This past winter, The Puritan's "Epic Issue" featured two reviews with remarkably different takes on the poetry of Matthew Tierney, as well as an interview with Tierney himself and fellow poet Mathew Henderson. This kind of miscellany creates a sense of union; instead of reading each work piecemeal, the reader can instead absorb each piece of writing as part of a cohesive whole.

In addition to each issue, we also feature mini-essays by each author about an aspect of their writing, which can be found on our blog, the Town Crier. This treats the reader to some inside information related to each issue, and also allows for discussion and debate about the work.

Our issues also feature audio recordings of the authors reading from their own work, which adds an additional facet to the reading experience, capturing the rhythm and tone of the work as read by its creator.

Read the second part of the interview here! Coming up: High-fiving other magazines, special projects, and a peek at what each magazine has coming up.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Andrew Faulkner

Andrew Faulkner co-curates The Emergency Response Unit, a chapbook press. His first book, Need Machine, was published by Coach House Books in April 2013. He lives in Toronto.

Go to Andrew Faulkner’s Author Page